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Daughters and Dragons

Spinning fantastical bedtime stories became about far more than simply helping my daughter drift to sleep.

When my daughter Evie was small, I told her a series of bedtime stories. Seated in the half-light of her room, I devised nightly updates on Ten Town, where every citizen is 10 years old, and on the birdbrained doings of Buckwheat, the silliest donkey in the world. Evie binge-listened in her compact built-in bed, bath-scented and pajama-soft. Her curls fanned out on a white cotton pillow like a cinnamon halo.

The nightly installments went on for years, like sitcoms in syndication. On nights when I came home after beers with friends, the plotlines detoured, digressed, and dipsy-doodled. On a few evenings, I fell half asleep and, chin to chest, unknowingly blended the stories with the fantastical events of my dreams.

The stories began as an experiment. In 2002, when Evie was 3, we toured preschools. During an information session for prospective parents, an administrator at a Waldorf school explained that its early childhood curriculum emphasizes the value of spirit and imagination. Nothing wrong with reading aloud, he said, but children engage more fully with tales drawn from your own wits. I tested the Waldorf theory that night by inventing Cricket, a precocious little girl who lives in a grand apartment overlooking Central Park with a grizzled caretaker, Ling Ling, and their kindhearted dog, Buddy. Cricket was part Eloise, part Katniss Everdeen.

Storytelling, like parenting, requires constant improvisation. Instinct is the only rudder.

I knew the Waldorf theory had panned out when Evie propped herself up in bed to query me. What befell Cricket’s parents? Was Ling Ling wicked or warmhearted? Did Cricket walk Buddy in Central Park by herself?

The Cricket stories made such an impression that Evie began calling her younger sister Cricket months before she was born. As a teenager, Ann still goes by Cricket, like it or not. (Oddly enough, the flesh-and-blood Cricket resembles the fictional version—a gimlet-eyed New York girl with deadpan banter and a sizzling streak of independence.)

The Cricket chronicles, and all the ensuing stories, halted mid-episode when Evie’s fluttering eyelids lowered by increments and her soft exhales assumed the steady rhythm of sleep. She sometimes raised a forefinger, indicating that she was still listening with eyes closed. But the finger never stayed aloft for long. It felt like a reprieve when my audience of one fell asleep for good. I rarely knew how to bring the plots to tidy resolution. Storytelling, like parenting, requires constant improvisation. Instinct is the only rudder.

With Evie asleep, I would stagger into the kitchen looking for dinner, though over time I developed the habit of lingering in the dark, listening to the muffled complaints of taxi horns and the wheeze of city buses lumbering across Columbus Avenue. No doubt I paused out of exhaustion. I was spending long days toiling in a newspaper newsroom. I can see now that I also stayed for a measure of solace and satisfaction. Story hour was the moment of the day when I felt most present; I was reluctant to break the spell. I had brought to life and set in motion characters drawn from roommates, workmates, aunts, uncles, and other family members. The cast had its own gravitational pull. They softened the coarse edges of everyday life. Stories, I had come to understand, are the balm of the soul.

My repertoire of stories would compete for dominance, like TV shows vying for prime time. For a period they gave way altogether to My Father’s Dragon, a chapter book about a boy, Elmer Elevator, who runs away from home to rescue a baby dragon enslaved on faraway Wild Island. The lions, monkeys, and other mean-spirited island creatures had knotted a stout rope around the baby dragon’s neck and forced him, as a matter of convenience, to shuttle them across a muddy river that divides the island. Ruth Stiles Gannett wrote the book in 1948 “to amuse [herself] between jobs” four years after graduating from Vassar College. It was a family collaboration. Her husband chose the typeface. Her stepmother illustrated Elmer’s Homeric journey to Wild Island and back with grease pencil.

My brother Petey sent Evie the book. Its title page bears a hand-written inscription made crooked by his decline. Evie never got to discuss My Father’s Dragon with Petey. Oncologists diagnosed him with an inoperable brain tumor not long after the book arrived. I was on deadline at The New York Times when his email hit my inbox. The news shuddered me to the core, but it was not entirely unexpected. We had vacationed at a Yucatan beach with Petey and his family weeks earlier. He arrived in Mexico somber-faced and suffering a bad flu, or so he said. As the week wore on, his illness acquired an ominous gravity. Headaches drove him to sit in the shade with a towel draped over his head. He seemed detached, unreachable.

In the wrenching months of deterioration before Petey fell into a coma, Evie could reliably make him smile. On my laptop I keep a photo of her in a tiny red felt nightgown sitting down to eat a plate of scrambled eggs. Petey leans in with mouth agape, as if to gobble the eggs before she can sink her fork in. I put her in bed with him, and they would poke each other and guffaw. She was, of course, unaware of the foreboding in the room.

My father wrote a short eulogy for Petey’s memorial service. He is an old-fashioned gentleman of stoic bearing, but he was unable to read his words. And so I read them for him, standing in a soft rain on an island in the Potomac River before two hundred or so friends. The eulogy referred to Petey as “our gentle son.” He was gentle. Gentle but droll—like a sweet-tempered Monty Python comic. He was an ornithologist, an evolutionary biologist employed by the Smithsonian, but he possessed an unlikely rapport with children—a fairy dust. He didn’t come at kids all moony-faced and smirky. He let them gravitate to him, drawn by his quiet waggery. When a niece was homesick for her parents, we aunts and uncles in a shared beach house tried to comfort her with varying degrees of failure. Petey was the one who could lull her contentedly to sleep with his own bedtime stories told in his buttery baritone.

When Evie and I reread My Father’s Dragon after Petey’s death, I sensed that the young hero, Elmer Elevator, was a version of Petey—a boyish adventurer inexplicably gone from his household. Elmer departs on his rescue mission in the middle of the night with his father’s knapsack stuffed with 25 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He leaves no parting word behind—no note, no goodbye. The book does not show his parents waking to find their son missing. Nor does it convey the terrible days of anguish that surely followed. Elmer’s own thoughts cast back to his home only once, and fleetingly, when he and Boris, the liberated dragon, stand stranded on a sandbar with the tide precariously rising above their ankles. An illogical backwater of my mind wondered if Petey might have sent the book to foretell of his own departure.

As Evie advanced to lower school, the bedtime stories matured with her. Night by night we talked our way through the annals of boy detectives Mike and Mikey, who played rounds of after-school darts while waiting for the phone to ring with a new neighborhood case to solve, and the rival schools Phillips and Tisdale and the devilish pranks they inflicted on each other. If a story saddened, Evie stopped me as firmly as Martin Scorsese on a film set. I was instructed to retrace my steps and choose a cheerier account. She had become an editor, a critic.

All the while Cricket listened from her trundle bed. Occasionally her high flutey voice would pipe up from the dark, declaring that she could not follow a story. So I created for her a set of simple vignettes about Bobby Bird, a pigeon that patrolled Central Park looking for Dougie the Dog, and about Cheese Whiz, a town where food talks back to diners—salad bar fixings sing a cappella and hot dogs converse in Brooklyn accents.

In 2008 we moved to a larger apartment where, for the first time, Evie and Cricket bedded down in their own rooms. The stories continued in Cricket’s room for a year or so, then petered out. I never told another story until three years ago when, on a pitch-black night in Tortola, our rental car slid precariously on a steep, pockmarked cliff road above the ocean. Once we safely reached our rental home, Evie asked for a story. I was pleased to oblige.

Fifteen years have passed since Petey’s death. The copy of My Father’s Dragon bearing Petey’s inscription now sits in a stack of neglected books above Cricket’s desk. Last Christmas I sent a copy to 1-year-old Oscar, the grandson Petey never met, with a note gently hinting at its significance.

Evie turns 18 this spring. We’ve long since stopped sharing evening stories. Like any busy teenager, her reading consists of biology textbooks, calculus problem sets, and, of course, the incessant inflow of texts. She leaves for college late August. I have a numbing awareness that I will soon confront an empty bedroom. In the long run-up to her departure, my mind goes back to Elmer’s bereft parents. We live in a wired-up culture that discusses every issue to exhaustion, but a child’s leave-taking is still a strangely private form of heartbreak.

We all yearn to keep our loved ones safe; we wish to hold them close to our hearth, to arrange blankets about them as they drift to sleep. But faraway dragons call for rescue, they call for all of us. Evie must attend hers, as I attended mine. In the meantime, the capers of Ten Town and Mike and Mikey live on in my nocturnal imagination.

Michael Cannell is the author of Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

Illustration by Sam Kalda

Originally Published March 2017